Purge: James DeMonaco’s Thriller

A veteran of penning gritty screenplays such as The Negotiator and Assault on Precinct 13, James DeMonaco was inspired to draft The Purge after a couple of unexpected events put his creative process in motion.

Most significantly, the idea for the story was sown when he and his wife were almost killed by a reckless driver. DeMonaco recalls: “In a fit of terrible road rage, I had gotten out of the car to argue with this guy, and my wife pulled me back. When we got back in, she turned to me and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we all had one free one a year?’ I thought that was such a dark thing to say, especially for a doctor. But it stayed with me for a very long time.”

DeMonaco was living in Toronto working on a film. One night, while absentmindedly watching television, it dawned on him that the local news was broadcasting stories that were quite less violent in nature than the ones he was used to seeing in the United States. He suddenly found it eye-opening that his home country’s media covered so many more stories about violence and was curious to explore if America is unique on the world’s stage…or if we simply focus and obsess more upon these types of stories. The thoughts fused together, and the tale of a terrifying extension of what our society could become was born.

As evidenced by his earlier screenplays, DeMonaco had deep interest in exploring the cause-and-effect relationship that our society has with aggression. Like many of us, he was intrigued as a young reader by allegorical stories such as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game.” Reflects the director: “I wanted to get people talking about the violence in America. Our film has themes of class. In a way, the thought process comes from Hurricane Katrina and the government’s response, or lack of response, and how we treat the poor.”

The director and his producing partner, Sébastien Lemercier, spent approximately three years developing the script. During this time, they explored the journey each character would take and how the night of The Purge would affect the four members of the Sandin family. Their goal was to shape the tone of the story so it would feel more like a morality play set in the near future than a science-fiction fantasy. Provides DeMonaco: “Sébastien was such a crucial part of keeping my vision alive. He helped me get the script in the perfect condition to bring to Blumhouse and Platinum Dunes.”

DeMonaco wrote of a New America where, after years of social unrest, the unemployment rate is now at one percent and the poverty rate consistently stays below five percent. The government as we know it no longer exists, but a new regime, the New Founders of America (NFA), has solved the vexing issue of dealing with the violent and disenfranchised by sanctioning one night per year when we may free our id and commit any crime imaginable, free of punishment. The NFA has pushed through and ensured the ratification of the 28th Amendment to codify every American’s right to the annual Purge.

Annually, from March 21 at 7:00 p.m. until March 22 at 7:00 a.m., mayhem rules and we are cleansed.

For the five people we meet on March 21, 2022, nothing will ever be the same. DeMonaco introduces us to security system salesman James Sandin, who has arrived home from work just in time for his family’s annual ritual of locking themselves in tight. Immediately after dinner, The Purge commencement is announced. James activates his top-of-the-line security system, and the Sandins settle in for a quiet evening free of mayhem…or so they foolishly believe.

A few minutes into lockdown, young Charlie, checking out the security camera feed in the control room, sees a stranger running down the street and screaming for help. Charlie panics. How can he leave this man out there to die? But if he helps the man, what would that mean for his family’s safety? Ultimately, the boy disarms the security system and lets the stranger into his home. That’s when all hell breaks loose. The stranger turns out to be a homeless man who has been chased down by a group of masked Freaks, shepherded by their polite leader (Sanctum’s RHYS WAKEFIELD).

When the murderous gang refuses to leave unless the stranger is returned to them, James and Mary are left with the unsavory choice of whether to do what they know is morally right and protect him, or sacrifice him to the within-their-rights felons wielding machetes and James watches and waits machine guns outside their door. As they struggle with this moral dilemma, we see ourselves and ask what we would do in the same situation.

The writer/director envisioned filming the thriller on a very modest budget, one that guaranteed creative freedom, and he wanted to direct it when the time came to shoot. Alongside Lemercier, in 2009, DeMonaco brought the story to Jason Blum. As producer of the enormously successful Paranormal Activity series and other breakout “micro-budget” films, such as Insidious and Sinister, Blum had been building his own production shop— one that would allow filmmakers a chance to tell their stories. The producer recalls the conversation: “We got together, and James said he had written this script about how a corporation that is now running America is utilizing The Purge for criminals to get rid of each other, poor people to get rid of each other and the upper-class to get rid of the disenfranchised. I thought it was very provocative.”

Blum has been quite thoughtful with his cost-effective business model, typically opting to work only with experienced directors and keep filming on a very tight schedule. In fact, the partnership among Blum, DeMonaco and producer Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes company made perfect sense for The Purge. Blum explains: “One of the many benefits of having Platinum Dunes involved in the making of The Purge was that we didn’t break our model. James was a second-time director, so we added a very experienced filmmaker [Bay] and production company [Platinum Dunes] into the mix to make sure we got the most out of the resources that we had.”

Shooting a movie on a more abbreviated schedule may scare some filmmakers, but DeMonaco was quite pleased with the process and outcome. He shares: “This movie really fit into the producers’ specific budget and timetable, and that pushed us to be more creative and efficient with our time. We all knew each other and became a great team.”

For their parts, producers Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller have created innovative, yet responsibly budgeted, films under the Platinum Dunes banner that speak to a wide audience. From the very successful re-imaginings of The Amityville Horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street to their last hit with Universal Pictures (under the Rogue banner), The Unborn, the trio has captured audiences’ attention and changed the way we look at both suspense- and supernatural-thrillers.

More recently, the men have worked with the company to shift its focus toward a different model— one that Blum has also championed. Fuller notes: “Jason has created a great model of making low-budget movies and has figured out a way to do them in a way that no one else has. When we brought The Purge to Universal, what sold them is that we could make a great movie for a small amount, and our track records helped push through that it was a worthwhile investment.”